Nigel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?
Marty: I don’t know.
Nigel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?
Marty: Put it up to eleven.
Nigel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
From This is Spinal Tap
Wednesday and Thursday: Up to Eleven
The last night Noah was ten years old, we were busy with birthday preparations. June had wanted to get him a book for his birthday and an attempt to find a suitable one at a local toy store earlier in the week had failed, so we needed to make an online purchase. I’d been dithering and hadn’t bought anything but the immediacy of the deadline focused my mind. I picked three titles and slightly after June’s bedtime she crawled into my lap as I sat at the computer and I showed her pictures of the covers and gave her a brief summary of each one. “I’m going to stay up?” she said at first, and then, “I can’t believe you’re telling me about scary, big-kid books.” She was delighted, as if I was letting her in on a big secret by telling her that Something Upstairs is “about a boy who makes friends with a ghost.” That was the book she picked, incidentally. So I printed out an image of the cover for her to give him in the morning and we were set.
Beth and Noah were making a batch of homemade chocolate chip ice cream for his party on Saturday—our ice cream maker produces fairly small batches and Noah wanted three so they were getting an early start. They’d already made frosting for his school party the night before. (Noah and a classmate who shares his birthday had hatched a plan for her to bring in cookies and him to bring in frosting and have a frost-your-own-cookie party at school.) Beth helped Noah with his math while the ice cream churned. After he went to bed, I finished wrapping presents and listened to him toss and turn for longer than usual. It’s hard to fall asleep when you’re teetering on the verge of eleven.
Meanwhile, Beth retreated to the basement where she set to work assembling his drum set, his big present. The drums are second-hand and when Beth got them out of the boxes she discovered several components were missing—the cymbals, the bass drum foot pedal and the snare drum stand. The previous drummer had cut a hole in the drumhead of the bass drum and adorned it with stickers including one of a scantily clad woman posing with a gas pump nozzle. Still, it was a real drum kit. I thought he’d like it.
We had Noah open his presents that morning before school. He got two games from Grandmom and Pop, two t-shirts (the numeral eleven shirt and one from my sister with the symbol for pi, made up of the numerals of pi), a pair of summer pajamas, and a half a dozen books (including June’s promise of a book to come). He wanted to linger, reading the backs of books, inspecting the numbers of the pi shirt, but Beth was concerned about getting out the door on time and she kept saying, “Next present!” and handing them to June to give to him. When the presents were all unwrapped Beth said she thought there was something else she’d left in the basement, and we all trooped down there. She pulled the old bed sheets off the drums and for a moment all Noah could say was “Whoa! Whoa!”
June hopped up on the stool, or “throne” as it’s called, and started to play the drums with her hands like bongo drums while Beth explained how she was writing to the store to see what had become of the missing parts and told him we could get the drumhead replaced unless he liked the sound of the cut one (some drummers do cut them intentionally, which is no doubt what happened to this one). Beth told June to give Noah a turn on his own drums and he ran upstairs to get his sticks and then started to play the drums, looking quite serious as he did so.
As it turned out, Beth and Noah didn’t have time to walk to his bus stop so they were waiting to catch a Ride-On when I came back from June’s bus stop. “Do you have the frosting?” I asked and he dashed back into the house.
That afternoon Noah considered practicing on the new drums but decided the missing snare drum stand would not allow him to practice his snare part for the upcoming band concert well enough so he used his old set-up in the study instead. He brought the throne upstairs to sit on, though.
He didn’t have much homework, so after he finished it and practiced percussion, he had time to experiment with dying baking soda red before dinner. Why did he need red baking soda, you might ask? Noah had another mystery party, his third consecutive one. He keeps doing it over and over again because although his guests have fun and he seems to be having fun as well, when the parties are over he always stews about how it didn’t go precisely as he planned so he keeps trying to get it exactly right.
This year he decided on several key changes. He would have a smaller guest list—just four boys— and he’d assign them characters instead of having it be more of a free-for-all scavenger hunt. He had two detectives, a cartographer and a villain. Sasha was the villain, and as such, Noah thought he ought to help devise the story and the clues, so last weekend he invited him over to work on it. While Sasha was uncharacteristically hesitant and deferential (I think he was unsure what Noah wanted from him), I see his influence. Noah has stuck to theft as the crime in his mysteries to date, but this one’s a murder mystery. The red powder was for a trail of bloody flour to be left on the sidewalk. (The murder victims were all bakers.)
I made Noah a birthday dinner of egg noodles with broccoli, carrots, butter and Parmesan cheese. Afterward we had fancy pastries from Takoma Bistro since there wouldn’t be cake until his party. Noah chose the chocolate Napoleon of the four pastries I’d selected while the kids were at school. Beth brought YaYa’s present home from work, where it had been shipped. It’s a Perplexus ball, a 3-D marble maze enclosed in a clear plastic sphere.
After June was in bed, Beth and Noah worked on another batch of ice cream for the party, and experimented with audio effects for the party. In between Beth talked to someone from the music store about getting the missing pieces of the kit shipped to us and Noah did a math worksheet he thought he’d left at school and discovered fifteen minutes before bedtime. And then he climbed into bed, wearing his “Rock Legend” pajamas ten minutes after bedtime on his first night as an eleven year old.
“Did you have a good birthday?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said earnestly, but then he added that it didn’t have the same “jibe” as it used to, though. “Probably because I’ve done it ten times before.” So I said a fond goodnight to my jaded tween and left his bedroom.
Saturday and Sunday: That Extra Push off the Cliff
The party was not until five in the afternoon because we needed to accommodate a baseball game and weekend full of Boy Scout activities for all his guests to be able to attend. This gave us plenty of time to clean the house and work on party preparations. I cleaned the dining room, living room, and study and swept and mopped the front porch and mowed part of the lawn. Noah vacuumed and helped me move the porch furniture onto the lawn in preparation for cleaning the porch floor. Beth cleaned the bathroom, took June to Kung Fu and the library, ran errands (many of them party-related) and made the cake. It was simple, as Noah’s birthday cakes go, a rectangular cake with white frosting, decorative black stripes down the sides and thirteen red dots on top, meant to evoke drops of blood. (There were thirteen murder victims—a baker’s dozen, get it?)
Noah kept saying he didn’t feel very stressed about the party. A little more stress earlier in the day might not have been a bad thing because at 4:55 he was completely unprepared. He’d staggered the guests’ arrival times so he could have time to give them individual instructions, but when the twins arrived, he wasn’t ready for them and they had to play by themselves in the yard and wait for him. When Elias got there Noah had only just started to brief one twin and the other was still waiting. Fortunately, Sasha didn’t need any instructions as he’d written most of the clues and knew what was going on. He was sent to wait in the bathroom to be found. It’s a good thing Beth cleaned it because the party unfolded largely outside and that was the only room where anyone spent any time. In fact, Sasha spent a good deal of the party waiting in the bathroom. I felt sorry for him, but he had co-written the clues that were giving everyone so much trouble, and Noah keeps a lot of books and magazines in there and there were even burning candles for atmosphere, so I hope it wasn’t too boring for him. At any rate, he didn’t complain. He’s a good friend.
Outside, thing were not unfolding as seamlessly as Noah had hoped. At his two previous mystery parties, there had been problems locating the clues—they went missing, or were discovered out of order or by the wrong team one year when there were teams. Noah managed to avoid that kind of logistical problem this year. He’d even done a dry run with Beth on Friday evening to help everything proceed smoothly. This year the problem seemed to be that the guests couldn’t figure out the clues. And once they got discouraged, only David was really giving it his all. Richard was more interested in playing the slingshot he’d been issued and spraying Noah with the garden hose. Noah was visibly frustrated and not as polite as he could have been. He gave them hints that helped move the search along, but he wasn’t gracious about it and a on a few occasions he berated his guests. I think being flustered and rushed at the beginning of the party made it hard for him to keep his composure. He’d also scraped his knee and shin badly when he fell down on the sidewalk right before the party and he was in too much of rush to let me clean it.
Finally, and with a good deal of help, the detectives found the murderer, and the party improved from there. Over pizza and cake and ice cream, Noah and Sasha squabbled, in a good-natured way, over whose fault the difficult clues were (Noah had added some false leads without Sasha knowing it). The other guests pitched in with suggestions for next year, implying that they expect him to throw a mystery party again and that they intend to come to it, so clearly wasn’t a complete disaster. When the boys were finished eating some of them started playing baseball with a plastic bat and an inflatable Tinkerbell ball, and some of them played a game on Beth’s iPad until their parents came for them.
After the party, Noah opened his presents—a Titanic-themed Wii game, a set of night goggles, a hatch-your-own alien kit, and Lego model of the Eiffel Tower. We discussed whether it was time to start celebrating his birthdays in a different way—a movie or dinner with a close friend or two perhaps? We almost took this direction this year, but in the end he’d wanted another shot at the mystery party.
This morning, still thinking about next year, he admitted he wanted to let go of the mystery idea, but he couldn’t seem to do it. I told him how mysteries are inherently chaotic, how many real crimes go unsolved and others are solved only through coincidence and dumb luck. The only really controlled mystery is a mystery story because the author is in control, I said. And then I suggested he write a mystery story over the summer if he wanted to have that experience. June piped up that they should do it together and now, so before breakfast they wrote a page of their mystery story. I don’t know if needing to compromise with a co-author will present him with the same challenges he’s been facing with improvisational actors, but so far it seems to be going well. I hope it helps him move through this, because there are good ways to go over the cliff, and not so good ones.